Oumou Sy, is known as "Senegal's Queen of Couture" . While she doesn't mind the honorable title her thoughts are that " People can say whatever they want, I don’t see myself as the queen of couture, fashion, [or] the queen of anything actually. I simply create clothing; people can call me anything, I just carry on. Only God knows if I am a queen. Anyone can be a queen in their own field."
Sy was born in Podor, a haven of peace on the river in the northernmost point of Senegal that borders Mauritania. Traditional tribal cultural expectations dictated a womens role at the time and for Sy this was no different, " Women in my tribe have only one purpose: to get married, be pretty, and stay silent. When my dad died, I felt all his force come into me. At the age of five I was no longer a child, at the age of 9 I refused an arranged marriage, at the age of 13 my mother bought me my first sewing machine and I started using recuperated fabrics. I wanted to be independent, if you are a woman, financially self-sufficient, and you can provide for your parents, people would not bother you, and you would be respected."
After receiving her first sewing machine at 13 she embarked on her life-changing fashion journey in 1965. With the opening of her very first workshop, Bagatelle Couture, Sy’s ultimate dream was to be “independent and self-sufficient”. Bagatelle Couture ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week, “because the client can’t wait,” Sy said. Even then, Sy worked in both traditional Senegalese dressmaking, with its dramatic and colorful volumes, and sleeker Western trends.
She came to Dakar in 1989 to study Art and got introduced to wonderful Senegalese artists back then. She started working in the cinema industry with the very first Senegalese movie maker Ousmane Sembène and then with Djibril Diop Mambéty on his movie Hyenas.
The Inspiration Behind Oumou Sy
Her distinctive taste and use of materials has set her work apart in the industry.
She would take what she could and make it her own. She enjoyed working with different materials, things that surround her, that she would come across in her everyday life. As a self-proclaimed hunter and gatherer of things; she would seek out natural elements to work with such as plants, herbs, barks, and natural dyes, using either traditional or modern techniques. She would often choose a material and look for a way to highlight it. While she never learned to read and write, she considers herself an autodidact allowing more use of memories rather than relying on note taking like many traditionally do. "Our brains know how to function. I have no complex about it. Literacy isn’t the whole of a person.”and so my fashion is the most important vessel for the expression of my creativity.
More than a designer....
To my own surprise in learning about Oumou I learned that she was very instrumental in bringing internet access to many rural areas when Senegal became the second African country after South Africa to connect to the Internet.
Sy wanted to extend connectivity beyond the elites and intellectuals in Dakar. “I wanted to do the Internet my way, for people who never went to school,” she said. “We used to have a postman who would deliver letters to people on a bicycle. He’d read them aloud, take down people’s replies and then go back to the post office and send them.” Sy adapted that model to Metissacana, the Internet café and service provider in Dakar she founded in 1996. Like at Bagatelle Couture, she hired aides to work in three shifts of eight hours, showing people how to use the computer, and helping them send and receive emails around the clock.
“They told me you connected to the Internet by telephone and electricity so I bought some telephone cables from Sonatel, the national telephone provider, who asked, ‘Who is this girl who never went to school and she wants to do the Internet?’” She rented a bus and a big screen display and hired a rap group; together they toured the countryside giving demonstrations. “We came with the bus, we hooked up the cables to the telephone poles in the village center and we showed people how it worked. Later I went to a conference in Geneva where people who had never set foot in Africa said it wasn’t ready for the Internet. I said, ‘We’re already open.’” Metissacana’s services spread beyond Dakar but in 2002, the Internet business was shuttered. (Levy, 2020)
Oumou Sy's biggest hits include:
- In 1997 she founded SIMOD, one of Dakar’s two fashion weeks.
- The following year, she created the Carnaval de Dakar, an annual parade of costumed dancers, musicians and revelers, horses and buggies, and floats. She has taught at the École des Beaux Arts of Dakar, in Milan and Geneva, and founded Leydi, a fashion and costume design school in Dakar.
- In 2006, Sy received Senegal’s Legion of Honor and in 2007, was part of a West African dream team, designing the costumes for the Opéra du Sahel’s production of Bintou Were, by Mambéty’s brother (also Hyenas’ composer) Wasis Diop, with choreography by Germaine Acogny. Sy’s costumes have been displayed in museums across Europe and the United States, most recently in 2016, as part of the show “Making Africa: A Continent of Contemporary Design” produced by the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and the Vitra Design Museum, and in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art’s “Good as Gold” Exhibition. Her designs are part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar, where she is currently working to develop 3,000 examples of designs for African queens. (Marshall, 2020)